Up until a week ago, I worked for a retail chain store in California. I complained a couple of times that our manager was not allowing employees on my shift to take our breaks. We all had regularly scheduled breaks, but our manager wouldn't let us leave our stations. The day after I went to HR about it, I got fired. My manager said I had a "poor attitude" and wasn't "the right fit" for the company, but my performance reviews have all been good. I'm pretty sure I was fired because I complained about the breaks. Can I still collect unemployment, even though the company claims I got fired for cause?
It sounds like you will not only be eligible for unemployment, but you might also have a wrongful termination claim.
Under the law of every state, employees are eligible for unemployment if they are out of work through no fault of their own. If you are fired for misconduct, you won't be eligible for benefits. However, if you are fired for simply being a poor fit or lacking the skills for the job, that's not misconduct.
Each state has its own definition of "misconduct." In California, a fired employee has committed misconduct (and is therefore ineligible for unemployment) only if all of the following are true:
1. The employee owed a "material" duty to the employer. This means an important duty that is properly part of the job (this can be, for example, showing up for work and performing your job duties).
2. The employee substantially breached (in other words, didn't fulfill) that duty. A single or relatively minor transgression isn't enough to disqualify an employee from receiving benefits.
3. The breach of the duty showed a wanton or willful disregard for that duty. In other words, the employee wasn't just careless or thoughtless but intentionally violated the duty or showed a reckless disregard for the consequences. Inefficiency, inability to perform the job, or good faith errors in judgment don't meet this standard and won't render an employee ineligible for unemployment benefits in California.
4. The employee's breach of the duty must tend to harm the employer's business interests.
As you can see, your manager's statement that you were a poor fit or had a poor attitude don't fall within this definition. As long as you meet California's other eligibility requirements, you should qualify for benefits.
If you really were fired for complaining about being denied breaks, you may also have a wrongful termination claim. California law requires employers to provide paid rest breaks, as well as an unpaid meal break. It's illegal for an employer to fire an employee for asserting these rights.
You should speak to an experienced employment lawyer right away to assess your claims and decide how to proceed. If you have a strong case, your lawyer can help you take every necessary step to protect your rights, including stating, on your unemployment application, that you believe you were fired in retaliation for asserting your right to breaks.